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The Champions League is back, and it’s needed more than ever

Four big European title races have been all but decided, so it’s about time some of those future champions face a big challenge.

Paris Saint Germain v Montpellier Herault SC - Ligue 1 Photo by Xavier Laine/Getty Images

THE CHAMPIONS LEAGUE IS BACK!

And given the state of football in Europe, it couldn’t come soon enough. Three of the biggest European leagues look totally over, and a fourth is getting on that way. Bayern Munich are 18 points clear in Germany, Manchester City lead by 16 in England, and PSG lead by 12 in France. Barcelona’s seven-point gap in La Liga looks slim in comparison, but you’d be surprised if they threw it away. Shouts to Italy, where Napoli leads Juventus by a point, and Portugal, where the three biggest teams are having a proper scrap.

But! The early allocation of domestic silverware just means more space for Europe. And that means football in its finest form: knockout. Manchester United and Liverpool aren’t going to catch City at home, but this is a competition at the mercy of moments and random factors; refereeing decisions, volcanoes, ghost goals. Weird things happen, and the competition is much the better for it. League winners have overcome their competition. Cup winners have overcome their competition and fate.

THE CHAMPIONS LEAGUE IS BACK!

And so is England. There are five Premier League teams in the last 16, which is both a record and a very silly state of affairs. Whether this heralds a return to the strange days of the mid-noughties, when English teams sauntered through to the final apparently at will, remains to be seen. But we can hope. Everybody enjoyed those Liverpool-Chelsea games, right? Right? Not you, Jose.

Admittedly, we might not get five in the final eight. Manchester City, Liverpool, and Manchester United are favourites to beat Basel, Porto, and Sevilla respectively (though given the headache-inducing gruel that United have been serving up in recent weeks, Sevilla might be in with a shout). Distinctly not favourites, however, are Chelsea and Spurs, who face Barcelona and Juventus.

As well as entertaining games, hopefully, these two ties should act as an interesting test of cup logic. Broadly speaking, Spurs are in very good form, and Chelsea are not. The former have just beaten Manchester United and Arsenal at home; the latter are currently dealing with a weirdly unbalanced squad, a total failure to defend their title, and a manager who seems to be trying to get himself sacked.

So, common sense suggests that Spurs should give Juventus a game while Chelsea get taken apart by Barcelona. Cup logic, though, insists that knockout football is predictably unpredictable: Spurs will make fools of themselves, while Chelsea will be lifted by the ‘ah, sod it, nothing matters anyway’ attitude that comes with a blown season. It doesn’t make sense, but we shouldn’t rule it out. After all, it won Chelsea the whole competition back in 2012. Football is silly.

THE CHAMPIONS LEAGUE IS BACK!

And the plum tie of the round, with all due respect to Juve-Spurs and Chelsea-Barca, is Real Madrid against Paris Saint-Germain. There’s a real master and apprentice vibe to this one: PSG’s attempt to storm the citadels of European football has followed, more or less, the Real Madrid masterplan. Treat coaches as disposable? Check. Pick up galactico after galactico? Check. Pay a fortune to pinch one of Barcelona’s best players? Hello, Neymar.

While we’re on the subject of Neymar, it should be an interesting game for football’s record signing. This is what he was bought for, you suspect: to spark the transformation from domestic to continental dominance. Unless you suspect something more conspiratorial, in which case this game gets even better. A stopover in Paris isn’t the quickest way to get from Barcelona to Madrid. But it might be the most diplomatic.

(The only problem here is that Madrid, trying to win their third Champions League in a row, are in pretty wretched form. Ah well.)

THE CHAMPIONS LEAGUE IS BACK!

And the competition within the competition, the race for top scorer, is interestingly positioned. Cristiano Ronaldo is way out in front with nine but, as noted above, Madrid are a bit of a mess. If they sort themselves out, then Ronaldo will run away with it; if they don’t, then it’s wide open.

Five players have scored six each. This includes Harry Kane, obviously, though he now has Juventus’ terrifying parsimony to contend with. Edinson Cavani and Neymar also have six each, so we can be sure that Kylian Mbappe won’t be taking any penalties. Roberto Firmino has six as well, after taking the largest share of Liverpool’s 23-goal group stage. And finally, there’s Sevilla’s Wissam Ben Yedder, who doesn’t have quite the reputation of his competitors here but does have the opportunity to play against Phil Jones. Twice.

Lionel Messi, since you ask, has three. And given that he’s Messi, that probably counts as “lurking ominously.”

THE CHAMPIONS LEAGUE IS BACK!

And it is, in a strange way, the solution — or at least the salve — to the problems of European football, despite also being a major cause. It has always been the case that rich football clubs have attempted, through the deployment of that wealth, to tilt the field in their favour. But in this particular historical moment, the vast disparities at play have calcified Europe’s leagues into established aristocracies, vulnerable to nothing short of miracles.

The Champions League plays a huge role in this, of course; a self-reinforcing cycle, as the prize money for entry serves to strengthen the entrants against their non-qualifying peers. But by way of an apology, it takes all these aristocrats and throws them at one another, under lights, with a booming anthem and a massive trophy. If we’re going to have a stitched-up sport — and it appears that we are — then at least we get the compensation of a little chaos at the end.

THE CHAMPIONS LEAGUE IS BACK!

Ah, the sweet taste of Gazprom. How we’ve missed you.


Ranking the matchups of the Champions League Round of 16